Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes: An Interim Reading

Gilman 1I’ve struggled hard to get through Cloud & Ashes by Greer Gilman. I’ve already written about her seventeenth-century historical novellas starring Ben Jonson, which I consider completely brilliant. Cloud & Ashes is different, in that its setting is pre-industrial, magical and timeless, rather than in the English court of James I and VI. Its three constituent stories (one is short, one is middling, and the other is a novel) are not coherent narratives, but tell episodes from within a world that she first published in Moonwise, and assorted standalone short stories. They are fantastical, linguistically dazzling, and bloody hard to read. The cover blurbs compare Gilman to James Joyce, and I can see why: this volume is challenging, ignores the conventions, and forces the reader along a path that doesn’t so much lead to enlightenment as a cloud of unknowing and bewilderment.

Cloud & Ashes was joint winner of the 2009 James L Tiptree Award, which is high praise. I read the first story, ‘Jack Daw’s Pack’ (which was a Nebula finalist in 2001 for the best Novelette), and found myself in a dangerous and cruel landscape. I fought my way to the bitter end of ‘A Crowd of Bone’ (which won the World Fantasy Award for a Novella in 2004) and am very little the wiser. ‘Unleaving’, a new novel set in this world, published here for the first time, had me stumped on page 1. The stories are told in a faux seventeenth-century mode, convincingly handled by Gilman, who is a Shakespearian scholar. The vocabulary is unfamiliar, some of it probably invented, a lot of of it missed out, and the word order and arrangement is deliberately, paralysingly obscure. The mind freezes in confusion because sentence after sentence Does Not Make Sense. The way to read these stories is to skate over that thin ice of non-understanding and hope to fall in, be submerged and finally get it.

At plot level I can just about trace the story of ‘A Crowd of Bone’ – Kit Lightwode the fiddler is taken by a witch’s servant to become part of her household, and runs away into the wilds with the witch’s daughter Thea instead. They are in love and they roam the roads as beggars. But that is nearly all I can work out, since the narrative is almost completely dialogue, with snatches of truncated, shimmying description that shies away from actually saying what is happening. There are many speaking voices, often speaking from different moments in the story, from different perspectives. Untangling these is done by finding buried clues in the words used, a single name, possibly one instance of a verb in the past tense in a page of writing. As I said, it’s challenging.

Names move into and out of the narrative with damn’ all explanation. Whin, who seems to be a framing character with magical abilities and finds out Kit’s story after she rescues him from drowning, is completely unexplained, but has the responsibility of carrying a lot of story. Annis is the witch: good (actually not good at all, she does horrible things). Brock is a shepherd who looks like a badger and has pockets of useful things to hand out at will to the starving, freezing Kit and Thea. Cloud and Lune are countries (or are they states of being?). Ashes is – what? A condition? A transient personality? A life skill? A role of ritual significance? A metaphor for doom? Gilman knows, the readers of Moonwise may have an inkling, but I don’t. Ashes is referred to constantly as something that Whin, or others, used to be, or will become, but that’s something we have to find out, should we still have the patience. Margaret is – who? I think she will be explained in ‘Unleaving’, but, as I say, I haven’t the energy to tackle that one yet, and if I stop now, I will forget everything in the earlier stories and understand ‘Unleaving’ even less. It’s a reader’s bind: to fully appreciate Cloud & Ashes you have to read all of it, but ‘Unleaving’ constitutes more than half of this thick book, and I am exhausted. I want to read something less consciously tricksy, less dense, less wilfully unhelpful and less challenging. Sorry, Greer.

Greer Gilman, Cloud & Ashes (Small Beer Press 2015), ISBN: 978-1-9315-2055-3

Hearty and manly: Robert Gibbings’ Sweet Thames Run Softly

Robert Gibbings: hearty, manly, etc
Robert Gibbings: hearty, manly, etc

This summer I have the great pleasure of cycling through Oxfordshire country lanes to get to work in the publishing archives that share a building with the Museum of English Rural Life, over the Berkshire border in Reading. I’m being immersed in English country sights, sounds and smells, and am enjoying it no end. (It hasn’t rained much on me, yet.) So the next five weeks of podcast script catch-ups from Really Like This Book will be about nature writing. Today’s is the story of a leisurely punt down the River Thames by Robert Gibbings, an Irish artist and naturalist who was a book designer before the Second World War, and after the war became one of the first British nature presenters for the BBC, the forerunner of David Attenborough. He belonged to a vigorous, manly, hedonistic artistic circle which included the scandalous sculptor Eric Gill, and he ad at least two families of children. The title of his book, Sweet Thames Run Softly (1940) is a line from a poem by Edmund Spenser from the 16th century. That’s a pretty good indication of the timelessness of this book, and the timelessness that Gibbings was experiencing when he took his journey.

He and some friends built his punt themselves, with no knowledge of boat-building but with good advice from the builders’ yard down the river. It had lockers and a canvas cover to keep the rain off and the chill out, to be Gibbings’ temporary home for several weeks as he worked his way from the source of the Thames in the Chiltern Hills, down to Windsor Castle. Gibbings has so many interests that the journey is a slow one, constantly interrupted by his examination of anything that catches his interest. So the book ranges wildly over most of natural history: from geology to insects to fish to birds to people and to beer. He also tells stories: my particular favourite is the tale of what happened when a zoologist colleague gave him a cigarette tin full of dried South African mud, left over from an expedition he had completed two years earlier. Gibbings put the tin in water, and inspected it every few days, and was amazed and greatly entertained to witness several generations of pondlife and microscopic activity being born, living, dying, sedimenting to the bottom, and feeding in turn new insects and tiny water creatures, that eventually brought about the growth of plants. It wasn’t so much an experiment as seeing the life cycle of plants and animals speeded up.

Gibbings 1
Little Toller Books edition

We also get little outbreaks of poetry and Sir Thomas Malory, and we get a lot of local colour. Dialogue and conversations are recorded as Gibbings encounters odd or interesting people along the river. He does seem to keep meeting girls. There was a naked one swimming in the river during heavy rain, whom he tries to encourage to climb on board the punt for a cup of tea, but she wisely diverts his attention from what she might look like out of the water, by asking him to run down the riverbank to fetch her clothes. When he returns, not having found them (obviously not looking hard enough), she’s on board, safely wrapped up in one of his blankets. They have a nice cup of tea and conversation, but when she wants to leave, she does it again: she asks him whether that little brown bird at the fork of the old oak tree over there is a tree-creeper or a nuthatch. That was an inspired question to ask anyone who prides themselves on their bird knowledge, because easiest to work it out by looking at whether the bird is creeping up the tree trunk, or downwards. While Gibbings was looking carefully for the bird on the tree (which undoubtedly didn’t exist), the naked girl disappeared over the side of the punt and got away cheerfully, dignity and anonymity intact.

There was another girl whom Gibbings did not actually approach, but ended up watching though his binoculars because of her situation. She’d marched past him at a fast pace, clearly upset and clearly at the winning end of an argument that she had hoped would go in a different direction. The binoculars came out when Gibbings noticed a very dejected boy sitting on the towpath in the direction from which she had come, looking as if the argument had not gone the way he’d wanted it to either. When the boy jumped up and followed the girl, and met her, and brought her back in a calmer frame of mind, Gibbings was still interested, but I’m glad he put the binoculars away when they entered the wood together. On another occasion he met a third girl, protected by a ferocious man-hating aunt, but she managed to get away one Sunday morning while the aunt was at church to thank Gibbings for getting her dog out of a trap. They talked about the country tradition of hanging dead vermin on a fence to discourage the others. That’s not something we see very often these days, though I did see a barn door in France once that was decorated with the hooves and tails of wild boar. Gibbings’ habit of moving from one story to another is infectious.

Gibbings 2He’s a very outdoor person, and shamelessly enjoys getting away from civilised routines. He eats and sleeps when and where he wants, and brings any creature that he finds into the boat for inspection. He once stayed for two weeks in a nudist colony, which sounds off-puttingly hearty, and also reliant on good weather. Everyone played good hard games energetically all morning, and swam in the lake morning and noon. Gibbings is endearing in his frank enjoyment of the body, and the briskness of nature, even when it extends to truly bizarre stories about killer duck attacks while mating in flight, or bird-eating rabbits.  His stories about the wildlife in London parks are just as curious as his tales from Tahiti. His focus swoops in to hover at insect-scale, and then pulls back to consider the habits of badgers.

A typical chapter will follow a train of thought mixed in with the view from the punt. Chapter 7 is decorated with a nice engraving of a Friesian cow grazing, and begins with thoughts about kingfishers and how some come to perch on fishing-rods. We move on to bird camouflage, and then fish camouflage, and the habits of the painted lady butterfly. Gibbings then refers to one of his earlier nature books in which he describes the camouflage of the little owl, the green woodpecker, chrysalids and the red-crested pochard in Regent’s Park. Then we move up a scale with the greed of the heron and how it can be prevented from taking off by the sheer weight of its catch. This brings to Gibbings’ mind the heronry at Henley, their flights to Ireland and the legend of St Columba and the crane. Naturally this brings us to bird migration, and Gibbings’ experiences watching birds as he sailed from north-east England to Barcelona on a tramp steamer. These migrating birds had no fear of the boat or the sailors, and would invade the galley looking for food, and sit on the rail without concern, resting from the gales until the boat reached the Mediterranean. They cleared the ship of cockroaches, and brought out the nurturing spirit in the sailors’ hearts.

Gibbings 4The unfortunate death of a flycatcher brings to mind a story from Gibbings’ service during the First World War, when he was riding out on the moor in Cork, and saw seven golden plovers fly towards him, blown by a winter gale. Three of them dropped in a row as if shot, and Gibbings was at a loss to work out where the gunman had been, since he had heard no shot. The birds had been decapitated by the telegraph wire. Now that Gibbings is back in Ireland we get an Irish wildlife story, of Tom Raffery, the most classically educated failure of a priest ever, and his version of the story of Pan and Syrinx. Then we have the story of Lord Grey, with only one working eye, but who could memorise pages of classical history at sight, even though he couldn’t see the birds’ eggs in his garden’s nesting boxes. Lord Grey had written a birders’ book that Gibbings had illustrated, and so we hear about the multiple nest-building of moor-hens, and the dangers of even looking for a nest, since our trail will lead cleverer predators after us. All that is one chapter, and as you can see, it’s a right old jumble. But 24 chapters of this kind of writing is a glorious jumble, a total immersion in the wildlife of the Thames with many, many little diversions and tributaries.

The edition I have is a new one, from a small press called Little Toller Books, which is absolutely beautiful, a pleasure to hold as well as read. Gibbings’ own engravings decorate the chapters, and a really splendid painting, in lovely angular 1950s Stanley- Spencer style, of three men in sensible mackintoshes and flat caps fishing from a punt on the Thames, makes a perfect cover.



Lemon in the sugar: Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine

Bradbury 1This was a surprise. I picked up a paperback copy of this novel because I’ve been thinking for some time that I ought to be rereading Bradbury and bought the first one I found. I paid very little for it, because clumps of pages were already falling out: it was clearly a much loved copy. I was expecting 1950s science fiction: I read a novel about 1920s small-town mid-West life from a schoolboy’s perspective, completely soused in what we’d now call a Spielbergian wash of sentiment and cosiness. It would have been sickeningly sweet had it not been for the murders, the unknown stalker after dark, and the very curious beginning in which Douglas Spaulding sets the summer going by turning off all the town lights before dawn by puffing into the air.

These moments of horror and fantasy do most of the work to prevent Dandelion Wine turning into a mush of all-American family gloop like The Waltons, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio. I enjoyed and read Dandelion Wine right through to the end, whereas I have tried twice to read Winesburg Ohio because it is a modern American classic and has been reprinted oodles of times by respectable literary publishers, to force down the gullets of America’s schoolchildren, but it was dreary, pretentious toil. Dandelion Wine needs the touches of darkness to ground its fantastical, lush prose and the spectacular inner life experienced by Douglas Spaulding, aged 12, and his younger brother Tom.

Bradbury 2Like Winesburg Ohio, Dandelion Wine is a series of linked vignettes and moments in the summer of 1928 in Greenville, Illinois. When Doug has an existential awakening and realises that he is actually, really and truly alive, the summer kicks off and wonders begin to happen. Some are small-scale and merely friendly: when the trolley bus is about to be retired, before the buses come in, the driver takes the town’s children on a picnic to use all the lines for the last time, right through into the woods and countryside.

Several are sympathetic but tough about getting old, and its failures. Journalist Bill Forrester falls in love with Helen Loomis from her photo in the local paper where he has come to work, but he hasn’t realised that the paper has been using this photo for nigh-on seventy years. They keep company every afternoon for a fortnight, talking about everything, and she takes him travelling with her in her memories. An old lady who has hoarded and kept everything she once owned is shocked when the little girls who play in her back yard refuse to believe that she was ever as young as they. They take her gifts and come back for more, but they won’t believe she is anything except the shrivelled old woman on the doorstop, calling plaintively for someone to remember her.

Bradbury 3Two maiden ladies decide impulsively to buy an electric car, and drive it joyously through the streets until somehow one of their neighbours falls under its wheels. They hide in their house, terrified and ashamed, and only believe they haven’t committed murder when there isn’t anything about it in the paper. A colonel of the Civil War lives in a house with no furniture, only a bed and telephone, which he uses to ring his friend Jorge in Mexico City, and listen to the sounds of the street life that he will never see again.

And then there is horror, a shocking, sensational event in the summer idyll. Lavinia Nubbs defies the murders committed by the nameless and faceless Lonely One, and walks home right through the ravine at night on her way back from the movies. She and Francine have discovered Rosmary’s body there earlier on their way to the movie theatre, but once the police were called, Lavinia refused to give in to fear and dragged her friends out to laugh and be happy like they’d planned. Even when The Lonely One does confront her, she will not be intimidated.

Bradbury 6All these stories affect Doug’s awareness of passing time, now that he can see himself in a stream of time rather than always in the one place at the same age. The fact that someday people won’t be here any longer, that death happens, even to his grandmother, is the central theme. It’s a marvellous and enriching novel, with plenty of oddness to sharpen the taste.



Daughter of Delafield: R M Dashwood’s Provincial Daughter

Dashwood 1If you like E M Delafield’s comic classic Diary of a Provincial Lady, you’ll like Provincial Daughter, because it’s written by her daughter, R M Dashwood, and she’s even funnier. This week in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, I’ve been reading her story of a doctor’s wife in the late 1950s in Berkshire, one of the Home Counties near London.

This book was Dashwood’s only novel, and was deliberately written in the style her mother made famous with the three Provincial Lady books: in a diary format, with shortened sentences, and many terse and funny observations about her family and domestic nightmares. It was written in the late 1950s, when details of a modern housewife’s life are all about hands-on cooking, cleaning, washing and childcare, whereas the Provincial Lady had servants to do all that. The Daughter suffers just as much from the water tank that needs replacing, the washing-machine that explodes grubby water all over her new lino, and from the German au pair who needs almost as much care as do the three very lively and adorable boys whom she is supposed to look after.

The Daughter, who is nameless, is a doctor’s wife, but he (his name is Lee) works in the local hospital rather than in the village surgery, so this gives her a certain status in the village. However, there is also an expectation that as a doctor’s wife she will know all the cures for ailments that her friends have, particularly the more obscure obstetric ones. She is university-educated, apparently in English literature, which produces an arch expectation that she is terribly learned. Unlike Barbara Pym’s educated women, the Daughter is simply cheerful about her love of literature, and not at all interested in showing off. She is a secret writer, has had a few articles published, has a book on the boil, and at the beginning of the novel she has just been commissioned by a newspaper to write an article.

Dashwood 2Earning some extra money is quite important, more so than getting into print, because their class expectation that all three of their boys must go to prep school, and then a public school of some kind, school fees are a looming problem. There is also the pressing need for house improvements and car repairs that seem to dominate the family’s lives. So the 15 guinea commission from the Daily Tabard, and the request from the BBC that she come to London to do a voice test for a broadcast, are wildly exciting for the family. These are the most sophisticated highlights of a life that otherwise submerges this Provincial Daughter in cooking, cleaning, making beds, doing laundry, chasing after children, and a vast amount of physical work. I was amazed at the effort she puts into the two elder boys’ lunches for school. Sandwiches didn’t seem to be an option: a hot lunch was expected, and there were no plastic tubs or Tupperware, obviously. So she makes, BEFORE SCHOOL, a cottage pie in a small dish for each boy, for the teachers in the village school to heat up beforehand, and added a jar of blancmange each. Cottage pie means chopping, cooking, mashing, creaming, so I hope the blancmange came out of a packet. It probably didn’t.

This perfectly normal and educated housewife works unbelievably hard at the daily servicing of her family’s life. It seems inconceivable now that anyone could have had any life at all beyond housewifery with all this daily work and no help, so the moments when the Daughter gets the family out of the house and has an evening or a few hours to herself are a relief. And what does she do with them? She has good intentions to Get On with Writing her Book, but she daydreams, fritters away time looking at old letters, distracts herself with odd jobs that don’t need doing. None of this seems wasted because, if a hard-driven worker can’t break away from the iron routine of running a home, into aimless, purposeless pottering as simple mental relief, she’ll be miserable. And this Daughter is not at all miserable; this is a gloriously happy book about her life with her charming, adorable children, even if they are also occasionally demonic, and a very attractive husband who knows his value socially.

I absolutely love this artwork. The melancholy doesn't represent the book at all, but it might when you read it a second time.
I absolutely love this artwork. The melancholy doesn’t represent a first reading of the book, but it might when you read it a second time.

How does she fit into village society? She is patronised by the local county aristocrat, who clearly has a thing about her husband, but the county lady is a lot less selfish than Lady Boxe who terrorised the Provincial Lady, 20 years earlier. The Daughter lives a scrambling, chaotic life compared to her friends in the village, whom she repeatedly describes, grumblingly, as looking as if they’ve been dressed by Dior. Her own clothes are less smart and don’t fit, her hair and skin are reproached, she is constantly accused (by her friends) of letting herself go, and endures a visit by what must be a very early literary description of an Avon Lady. The Americans who live locally are even more beautiful and well-turned out, but do not make themselves popular: the English village ladies are totally taken advantage of by the American Maybelle, who gets them to do all the work at her children’s party. Another visiting American, invited for drinks, spent the entire evening complaining about the terrible English shops and the awful way of life in this backward land, so this does not make her popular. Ruth the Divorcée, a new woman who moves into the village, has dramatic and glamorous things expected of her (presumably this was a time when divorce was rare and thrillingly wicked?), but she turns out to be nice and normal, becomes a friend, and is of great practical help.

The village shop is still central: the Provincial Daughter keeps having to dash there in the car or with Ben in the pushchair to buy things that have been forgotten, with not very much money. The school is also a hub, as is the church, and she spends a lot of time waiting in the hospital for various child health appointments. One of these was for a Ben-related emergency, when he cut his hand and needed stitches, and she had to run out of the front door to grab the first passer-by to hold him while she got the car out to get him to hospital. The passing stranger, a nice but unknown woman, came along to the hospital, stayed for the stitching, and was dropped off back in the village, all without exchanging names in the stress of the moment. The Provincial Daughter only found out who she was months later, when she went to a newsagent to buy chocolates, spotted the helpful stranger behind the counter, and presented the chocolates to her instead. This human contact, the easy communication and expectation that since we live in the same place we will all muck in together, is what makes this book a great village story. It is also so different from village society twenty years earlier, which was far more divided by class and servants and psychological distance.

I particularly enjoy the truculent attitude that the Provincial Daughter brings out to protect and stand up for her village. The tyrant town librarian accuses all ‘your village’ of routinely handing their books back late, to the Daughter’s fury: so interesting how stories of public shaming keep coming up in small-town and village life. The hospital staff in the local town are uninterested in her wait of an hour and half for a missed appointment. To her annoyance she finds herself pulling rank, because she knows the Professor concerned socially, through her husband, and she magically gets a new appointment. She is persuaded to attend a lecture on English literature by a friend who insists that it will be good for their minds. So they sit in a hall of earnest women taking notes from the lecture by an arrogant young man, who seems to epitomise everything to be loathed about professional academics, and he is patronising about this village audience. She goes to London to have her hair cut, and is delighted to feel able to face down the glittering ranks of glamour queens who preside over the reception desk of the hairdresser’s, simply because she knows that the new cut suits her. The new cut is also impossible to maintain at home, without a full hairdresser’s staff, so she ends up, a week later, recutting it herself at home with the kitchen scissors.

Mostly though, this book is about a housewife at home with her family in the village in the late 1950s, and it is sheer delight. I happen to find it laugh-out-loud hilarious, so I hope you will too. It is beautifully written, charming, heart-warming, entertaining, instructive, and delightful.


Now posting on Vulpes Libris: Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl

Jahren 2I posted a keen and enthusiastic review of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl a few days ago on Vulpes Libris: do go and read it! It’s about science, plants, sexism, explosions, Minnesota determination and some bloody hard work writing funding applications to keep the lab going through bipolar interruptions because her lab technician is sleeping in a camper van whose engine can’t start till its cool and the graduate student just crashed the hire van on a field trip because she’s never driven in snow before. You will never not wear protective glasses in a laboratory again.